Monday, September 18, 2006

American Brandstand


In 1911, the L.L. Bean duck boot was designed to withstand weeklong hunting trips in the Maine woods. Over the century it’s held up just as well against New Haven tailgate parties and snowy slogs to the Westport station. But the tabletops of Bungalow 8?

“I love those boots,” says the designer and nightclub habitué Lazaro Hernandez, who had his Bean Boots refurbished after two years of everyday use. Hernandez, half of the fashion wonder team Proenza Schouler, insists, “All my friends have been copying me.”

Dig out your tote bags: fashion’s true believers, arguably the least authentic humans on the planet, are clamoring for the “real” America. Trend-deaf homegrown brands, whether fancy or just plain homely, have never been hipper. Will downtown Manhattan start looking like Martha’s Vineyard? “I look at old images of Bill Blass with his duck shoes and a cable-knit V-neck sweater and, like, a pipe in his library — it’s amazing,” Hernandez says. “It’s like wearing your grandfather’s clothes. It feels cool.”

Cool to be a part of the Kennebunkport clan? Well, yes. Fashion folks have always dressed way left of the Republican Party — they were the ones wearing Dr. Martens in high school, sneering at the preppies with their starched collars and sweater vests — but now the uniform of future bankers and country-club members has a certain cachet. Even to the former club kid. “Woody Allen is better-looking than any young guy I’ve ever seen,” says Andy Spade, the designer of Jack Spade. Though Allen’s family tree is more shtetl than Mayflower, his rumpled, tweedy look has inspired the mackintoshes and doctor’s bags at the Jack Spade shop in SoHo. The store, which also offers accessories like first editions of “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace,” is an homage to utilitarian 1950’s American classics. It’s hard to believe that Spade didn’t start manufacturing 60 years ago and simply mothball his stock until the fashion cycle spun its way back. “Everything,” Spade says, “comes down to the real McCoy.”

Which is why forward-thinking European designers have been brushing up on their Americana. Not that the modernist, high-tech designs of Prada or Giorgio Armani are out of fashion, but neither can they compete with the rugged charm of C.C. Filson (formerly C.C. Filson’s Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers). Back in 1897, when Filson began, the company catered to the needs of Yukon gold seekers, hunters and explorers. Filson’s current customers are still apt to brag about surviving bear attacks. But these days its handsome canvas luggage — both rugged and professorial in the Indiana Jones vein — is used more often for toting home wild-boar sausage from the Greenmarket.

“We are not a fashion company,” insists the chief executive, Doug Williams. Filson may be as concentrated on function as its wool vests suggest, but Williams reveals that the top ZIP code for catalog deliveries isn’t grizzly country — it’s Manhattan. (In other wool-vest news, Woolrich, the 176-year-old Pennsylvania company that once bundled up frontiersmen and today supplies fabric for Civil War re-enactors’ uniforms, did a brisk business at Bergdorf Goodman last fall.)

American designers are also looking homeward for inspiration. It was the quest for the ideal pair of chinos that lured Michael Bastian from his position as the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman to start his own namesake men’s-wear label. “Look at Frank O’Hara,” Bastian says, referring to the New York School poet and Cedar tavern regular. “You see these pictures of him, and he was so beautifully put together, very traditional, wearing old Brooks Brothers, an old rumpled-up raincoat, a perfect white oxford button-down.” In his search for paragons, Bastian recently worked with an Italian mill to produce Nantucket red pants that look as if they’ve spent 10 years fading in the sun.

There is a clear sense of nostalgia in dressing up in khakis and duck boots. It harks back to the Kennedy era and beyond, a simpler time when this country represented the American dream rather than the evil empire, a time before global warming, globalization and military quagmires. Perhaps the act of wearing “American” is, in fact, a subversive statement: dressing like the establishment helps you infiltrate the closed circles of your enemies more effectively than a nose ring.

Could preppy become the new punk? At least one stodgy label is betting on it. “The young customers we have now are, like, really hip kids,” says Mark McNairy, the new design director at J. Press, which has been dressing blue bloods since Theodore Roosevelt was in office. The company deliberately keeps its stuffy shops limited to New Haven; Cambridge, Mass.; New York; and Washington — the better to hook Ivy Leaguers on its blazers and “shaggy dog” wool sweaters before they head off to run the world. However, McNairy has decided not to ignore his more fashion-literate patrons. A recent addition to the J. Press line of icon-emblazoned neckties is one with skulls and crossbones, not a nod to Yale’s secret society but a wink to the new customer who has a closet full of ironic T-shirts.

Team U.S.A.: Ten Grand Old Brands

Alden: A New England shoemaker since 1884, Alden makes hand-sewn shell cordovan loafers that are required footwear on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s an Alden shop on Madison Avenue, but the firm stays true to its Massachusetts roots.

Allen-Edmonds: Established in Wisconsin in 1922, Allen-Edmonds shod the soldiers in World War II; today its dress shoes are renowned for their elegant welted construction, and the company’s generous repair policy allows you to send in your favorite wrecked wingtips to be completely restored.

Arrow: Founded to sell detachable shirt collars in the mid-1800’s, Arrow has responded to all the subsequent turns in men’s fashion with restrained Yankee design.

Brooks Brothers: Abraham Lincoln was shot in a Brooks Brothers coat, Franklin Roosevelt wore a Brooks cape, even Jack Kerouac preferred its oxford shirts. Credited with introducing ready-to-wear suits to the States and with inventing the button-down collar in 1896, Brooks Brothers is as American as the mint juleps at the Harvard Club.

C.C. Filson: Established to outfit miners, Filson still sells many of the same rugged pieces — in particular, its patented Mackinaw Cruiser coat, designed in 1914 — to weekend sportsmen in need of canvas luggage and waxed cotton jackets.

Hart Schaffner Marx: When G.I.’s were returning home from World War II, signs on the docks in France encouraged them to buy an H.S.M. suit before seeing their honey. This Chicago suit maker’s current lineup includes a fit that honors suits from the 50’s: a shorter blazer with a cuffless, plain-front pant.

J. Press: Dressing the Ivy League for more than 100 years, J. Press keeps its dusty American stores limited to key university towns to hook tomorrow’s leaders on its tailored blazers and oxford shirts.

L.L. Bean: This Maine institution made its name with duck boots and tote bags, but has expanded to sell similarly sturdy goods, from luggage to mountain bikes.

Wigwam: This century-old knitwear king has a track record of inventions, like the colored toe seam so that 50’s housewives wouldn’t waste time sorting.

Woolrich: Though Woolrich once wove blankets for the Union Army during the Civil War, its legendary wool Buffalo Check shirts, circa 1850, are now significantly softer.

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